• Amelia Heppner worked in restaurants for almost a decade.
  • When she started wearing red lipstick, she said her tips from men significantly increased.
  • Her “high school cheerleader” look might’ve drew men to her, which was gross, Heppner says.

This as-told-to essay is based on a conversation with Amelia Heppner, a 32-year-old former server and bartender in San Francisco, California. The following has been edited for length and clarity.

I worked in restaurants for almost a decade as a bartender, server, and manager. In the first few weeks of my first job an older waitress gave me a tip that changed the rest of my serving-industry life. She told me that wearing red lipstick when I was working would increase my tips. 

I didn’t think about it for a while because I wasn’t a makeup person but eventually I decided to give it a try.

The difference in tips with a red lip was wild. I’d make significantly more on the nights I wore red lipstick and a cute ponytail with my hair pulled back and curled. It was an immediate difference. The male clientele were so much nicer to me when I was put together like that, though it didn’t really make a difference with customers who were women.

I’ve thought a lot about why the red lipstick theory works 

I think part of it is that men are programmed to think red is a sexy color and studies actually back this up. Some scientists hypothesize that the color red signals female fertility to males. But it also makes me think of the McDonald’s logo and why it’s red and yellow. 

The psychology of color says that red is “mentally stimulating and is often associated with energy and excitement.” The color red is even said to increase appetite and I can’t help but think that’s part of why the red lipstick theory works so well with female servers. 

I spent a long time experimenting with different shades of red 

When I was working in a more upscale restaurant, I noticed a darker shade of red worked best whereas in a more casual restaurant, a bright fire engine red was the key to more tips. 

When a man is sitting in a restaurant, he’s probably already hungry — then the red lipstick is stimulating his appetite even more and maybe even subconsciously making him consider fertility. I don’t think men are consciously realizing this, but there are all these subtle cues in place.

I also noticed that how I did my hair made a difference 

If I had a slicked back ponytail with the ends of my hair curled, that made a difference in tips. I feel like it gave me a “high school cheerleader” kind of look that drew men to me, which I know is disgusting. 

I know it’s gross to think that men may be tipping me more because they think I look young, but women have to put up with men’s unseemly behavior all the time. I might as well make some money from it.

The tipping culture in the U.S., where we have to hustle for so much of our pay, is ridiculous and it leads to stuff like this.

I’ve learned that makeup can be used as a mask in the service industry 

When I put on my red lipstick and curled my hair, I was putting a mask over my real self. I could laugh at customers’ dumb jokes and put up with their silly requests more easily. I knew  they wouldn’t recognize me outside of the restaurant without makeup on. It was just a facade I was presenting to them.